Henry VIII – A Consultant’s Dream or Disaster?

Although it seems reasonable to view management consultancy as a relatively modern phenomenon, we could probably track the development of the profession through history (not that I’m volunteering to attempt this).

Take the reign of King Henry VIII for instance; Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and Sir Thomas More are prime examples of sixteenth century public sector consultants. Henry had an advisory Privy Council, but Wolsey’s rise to Lord Chancellor in 1515 gave him a unique position of influence over the young king. Although Wolsey was a papal representative, his industry specialism didn’t stop him from adopting a generalist role.

From implementing taxation policies (outrageous and otherwise), to strategising England’s foreign relations (war, war or raise taxes for war?) to Henry’s religious reforms, Wolsey’s voice of reason was selectively heard over a career of 15 years at the king’s metaphorical side (they resided at separate palaces more often than not). As you might imagine, travel was a big part of the job; Wolsey’s engagements took him to France, Spain and Italy where he could be found networking with his European counterparts in Rome.

He was paid rather handsomely for it too. With multiple bishoprics under his expansive belt, Wolsey’s wealth was second only to Henry’s. The annual bonuses went some way to creating Hampton Court Palace: the ultimate expression of Wolsey’s prominent position at court. Nevertheless, his success as Henry’s consultant was dependent on his ability to give the king what he wanted. The failure to acquire a papal dispensation for the Aragonian marriage meant Henry disposed of Wolsey and his services. (He was forced to retire. Luckily, Henry was not in the full swing of his penchant for beheading).

And so steps in Henry’s close acquaintance Sir Thomas More as Lord Chancellor in 1529. More essentially project managed the mission to squeeze out (read: burn at the stake) heretics in Henry’s catholic realm. Most of his work was therefore client-side, with travel at a minimum. However, More’s stint as the king’s primary consultant was brief; he gravely insulted his client on a number of occasions. Not only did he refuse to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn, in 1534 he refused to swear the Oath of Supremacy which recognised Henry as the head of the Church. One too many blows to the big boss sent More to the scaffold on charges of treason.

Unsurprisingly, not many were keen to succeed Thomas More. Though Thomas Audley was the lucky fellow who got the job, perhaps the risks were not so great. No man was to ever reach Wolsey’s esteemed position in the king’s graces, and none ever achieved a degree of closeness to Henry as had by More; the nature of work was never quite the same for the consultants to the King of England.


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